September 16, 2018

Teaching on Preaching

On Friday night, I taught a class on preaching. So much of what I covered comes from what I've learned from experiencing different traditions before becoming an Episcopalian. It's also worth noting that I had Episcopalians teaching me how to use our prayer book and lectionary long before I ever entered an Episcopal church (Thanks, Mike, Laurel and Gary!). I thought I'd jot down some thoughts on my key points from Friday night along with some backstory to how I got there ...

Many years ago, I became disenchanted with the evangelical practice of the sermon series. I had spent a number of years with Calvary Chapel, a network of nondenominational evangelical churches that tended to approach sermons as a platform for teaching the Bible. Verse by verse, chapter by chapter working their way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation week after week. This made sense to me. The biblical literacy in the congregations I was exposed to was incredibly high, which I view as a positive.

Yet, as the influence of mega-churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback grew, a particular approach to the sermon series grew popular. More and more pastors I knew approached the sermon as a growth tactic. The sermon itself was marketed in order to draw newcomers to church. Some preachers approached this with self-help themes. Others used pop-culture references. Still others used a "shock and awe" approach using series titles that would hopefully shock, surprise or leave people curious enough to attend the church. This approach bugs me. To do it well, requires a high level of creativity (which is honestly rare, which means it is often done poorly both in delivery and theologically). Even when done well, it often feels gimmicky and deceptive.

This is not a wholesale criticism of the sermon series. In fact, some series are devised as pastoral, addressing whatever our culture (more broadly within popular culture or within a congregation) is facing that requires a few weeks to work through. When approached in this manner, it can be beautiful. In fact, church planter Kevin Lum of The Table Church in Washington, DC has taken this approach year after year in a way I have always admired.

Pulpit v. Table
The Episcopal tradition takes a different approach and it was this approach that drew me towards becoming an Episcopalian. For starters, in most Episcopal congregations on any Sunday morning you can be certain that the gravity of the service is around the Eucharist table, not the pulpit. This is significantly different than many reformed and evangelical traditions where the sermon is the central point of the service. I was drawn to this because it demonstrated a central value in what it means to be the church: it is not disparate people fixated on an individual, it is a community gathering around a common meal where each participates equally. With this in mind, I have attempted to ask myself whether my preaching prepares people to come to the table; does whatever I am preaching on bring us back to the upper room and prepare us for the work Jesus has given us?

Harmony, not Melody
Another distinction for Episcopal preaching, is the lectionary. We read a lot of Scripture together on Sunday mornings. Across the Old Testament and New Testament. It is a practice in some evangelical traditions to take particular passages out of context. I was drawn to a tradition that was reading whole swaths of Scripture together before a sermon was preached, providing a controlsmall as it may be, on a preacher's agenda.

Side note: I say some evangelicals because not all evangelical preachers take part in twisting a verse to mean something that suits them and has nothing to do with the remaining passage. It was evangelical pastors that taught me to read and then teach Scripture by reading whole chapters and even whole books of the Bible before considering what a few sentences mean (Thanks, Pastor Raymond and Pastor David!).

In my observation, the lectionary took this a step further.

The lectionary assumes that all of the books we have in the canon, while not necessarily singing the same melody, harmonize with each other. That is to say they point in the same direction. Too often, Episcopalians are painfully biblically illiterate. This reality shocked me when I entered this tribe. This surprised me because I viewed the lectionary as a tool for teaching Scripture in a holistic way. And I've continued to take this viewpoint in preaching over the last 6 years of being an Episcopalian.

To take this "harmony" approach, I start with reading the Gospel passage for a given Sunday and then read the other readings in light of the Gospel. I look for threads and attempt to discern what the architects of our lectionary considered all of these passages to have in common. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it is not, nonetheless, I believe it is central that the life and teachings of Jesus inform how we read and understand the scope of Scripture.

This concept of "harmony" is important to me for another reason. Too often in my experience, when evangelical apologists attempt to defend an inerrant view of Scripture, it depends on people overlooking a whole bunch of inconsistencies. People are not stupid and we shouldn't treat them as such. The Bible has been written by a variety of authors in different eras and locations. Of course there will be details that appear to contradict each other! I always felt these apologists to be ineffective and pandering. And, yet, the lectionary has challenged me to ruminate on various passages throughout the Christian calendar pondering how these books "sing" together with Jesus' message we find in the Gospels.

Which brings me to my last principle for preaching.

Preaching through Prayer
If the Episcopal Church is anything, it's a tribe of praying people. Our shared life is shaped by prayer and the approach to preaching should be no different in my mind. My practice has been to read first the Gospel and then the other readings for a forthcoming Sunday as early in the week as I can–typically, on Monday. Throughout the week, I reflect on the passages in prayer, jotting down notes as I go. What inevitably happens is that these readings change how I approach any number of circumstances throughout the week. Sometimes I will reconsider how to handle a situation in the moment or find myself reflecting on something that has happened during the week in light of what I've read. It is a form of conversation with God that ends up shaping the sermon that is prepared by week end. This, I find, to be critical because the point of a sermon is to pique curiosity, interest and an awareness that these ancient words can breathe new life into our daily lives. We do the work of helping listeners find their story within God's Story by demonstrating it in our own. Certainly, the sermon is not an opportunity to air our dirty laundry or boast of our brilliance. Yet, we need to be able to find ourselves in the Story with humility–recognizing that we are the same journey as those listening and confidence–reminding ourselves and those listening that God of our foremothers and forefathers still speaks to us today.

I'd love to read about your preaching preparation process (if you have one) and thoughts on mine (if you have some).

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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